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Kin hope case changes doctors’ ways

Patient’s relatives call the Weitzel verdict bittersweet

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FARMINGTON — A jury's conviction of a Utah psychiatrist on two counts of manslaughter and three counts of negligent homicide Monday marked the end of Davis County's longest-ever murder trial, and family members of one of the victims said they hoped it changes the way doctors treat their patients.

Robert Allen Weitzel, 44, was found guilty in connection with the deaths of Ellen Anderson, Lydia Smith, Mary Crane, Judith Larsen and Ennis Alldredge. All were under Weitzel's care at the Davis Hospital and Medical Center's geriatric-psychiatric unit and died within a 16-day period in December 1995 and January 1996.

After the late-night verdict announcement Monday, Lydia Smith's family members said the victory was "bittersweet," because jurors elected to convict Weitzel on lesser offenses instead of the original first-degree felony murder charges for which he stood trial.

But several family members said they hoped to use what they learned to change the way doctors treat patients and interact with nurses and family members.

"Now we just want to go forward, and maybe help change some laws, to help stop this sort of thing from happening again," said Sharon Smith, Lydia Smith's daughter-in-law.

Sharon Smith said her family is looking forward to talking with legislators to better define the role of doctors, to motivate more thorough background checks for health care providers and to unify nurses who may feel bullied by their superiors.

"I think that's what mom would want," she said. "She was very good about standing up for the truth. We need to look at things differently. We need to make sure that we don't cover up the truth anymore. We need not hide the information."

The Partnership to Improve End of Life Care in Utah agrees with the sentiment, and will host a meeting Wednesday to shed more light on the issue, partnership spokeswoman Maureen Henry said.

Henry said she has heard "there is some fear" within the medical community that more doctors will be prosecuted for providing end-of-life care as a result of the Weitzel trial. To allay those fears, Henry said, representatives from the Utah Division of Occupational and Professional Licensing (DOPL) will be available to answer questions for physicians and the public.

"That's why I set up the program for tomorrow," Henry said. "Our goal is to educate physicians about the proper use of medications, to get a proper dialogue going between DOPL and physicians, and to educate people that there is a role for pain medications at the end of life that will not necessarily cause death.

"We want to try to allay fears that there's a witch hunt going on, but at the same time set down what the guidelines are that DOPL is looking for."

Henry said although the partnership would not comment on the verdict rendered in Weitzel's trial, she was concerned with the psychiatrist's testimony that he was "flying by the seat of his pants" in providing comfort care to the victims.

"That's exactly what we're trying to prevent," she said. "There are a handful of nationally recognized experts in end-of-life care in Utah, which is a lot for our population size. What we're trying to do is make those people accessible to people in the state who may be well-intentioned but may not have the information. Our goal is that all physicians will have the knowledge to provide good end-of-life care."

The meeting is open to the public, and will be held at 3 p.m. Wednesday at the Department of Human Services conference room, 120 N. 200 West.

When Lydia Smith was admitted to the hospital, she was in stable medical condition, Bonnie Smith Weight said. But shortly thereafter, Weight said she watched her mother "go downhill really fast."

"The last time I spoke with my mother, she was sitting in the dining room. I went in and said, 'Hi, Mom,' " Weight said, her voice thickening with emotion. "She looked up and said, 'Why?' She knew. She knew they were doing something to her. We knew they were. It just makes us sad that we couldn't do something about it in time."

Weight testified during the trial she questioned Weitzel and nurses about the medication they were giving her mother but was told only that Smith was receiving "comfort care." The day Lydia Smith died, Weight said she tried to stop a nurse from administering morphine.

"I asked her what she was doing, and she said it (morphine) had been ordered," Weight said. "I said, 'I don't care.' But I couldn't get around the bed soon enough. The nurse flipped her over and gave her the shot. She died 45 minutes later."

Weight said she hoped for a murder conviction but more so that others could be spared their pain.

"He's obviously a sick man," she said. "But one reason we've gone through all this is that we hope it never happens again, to anyone."

Prosecutor Steve Major said it is unclear what effect Monday's verdict will have on the way future cases are adjudicated but indicated Weitzel's convictions signaled a need for change.

"We still are feeling around with end-of-life care issues," he said. "We've learned we need to be more specific and more open in dealing with the issues, not 'flying by the seat of his pants,' as Weitzel said he did. Flying by the seat of his pants — that's a bad situation to be in for any doctor."

Major also said he hoped the verdict would encourage people to report similar incidents.

Though family members had mixed reactions about the jury's negligent homicide verdict in connection with Lydia Smith's death, son Kent Smith said he felt sorry for Weitzel.

"I feel sorry for anyone who allows himself to get to a point where he does such acts," he said. "But he knew what he was doing. He should have stopped what he was doing when they (the victims) declined so much."

Carolyn Buhman, Lydia Smith's younger daughter, said she attended every day of the 20-day trial to show support for the prosecution and to give a voice to those who died.

"I don't think about Dr. Weitzel," she said. "I think about trying to keep other people safe."

Buhman also echoed sentiments from other victims' families and the case's lead investigator, expressing her frustration that the court barred much of the state's evidence against Weitzel.

"I didn't feel the judge was fair," said Brad Alldredge, Ennis Alldredge's son. "He should have let the witnesses say what they were going to say and let the jury decide."

"It's like trying to open a bicycle lock when you only have half of the combination," Buhman said. "That's what the jury had. I would love to see a court where the attitude is about bringing us closer to the truth. The attitude of this court is, what will make Dr. Weitzel look bad?

"I'm grateful they got him for something," she said after the jury's decision. "But if they had the information we and the police had, it would have been five counts of murder."

Weitzel was taken into custody after the verdict announcement. He is scheduled to be sentenced next month. In total, Weitzel could face up to 40 years in prison for the five convictions.

Contributing: Derek Jensen.

E-mail: jnii@desnews.com